When bombs went off in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood on Saturday night, state and city officials said some very silly things. But understanding those remarks is actually key to understanding U.S. policy toward terrorism in general.
The immediate response of Mayor Bill de Blasio was to reject possible links to terrorism as such. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, declared that “a bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism, but it’s not linked to international terrorism—in other words we find no ISIS connection, etc.” Both men also rejected possible linkages to another bombing earlier in the day at Seaside Park, NJ, which had targeted a Marine charity run.
At the time both comments were uttered, nobody had any idea who had undertaken the attacks or what their motives were. Feasibly, the attacks could have been launched by militants working in the cause of international Islamism, or black power, or white supremacy, or none of the above: they might have been the work of a lone mad bomber furious at his maltreatment by the power company. De Blasio was thus right to leave open the question of attribution, but he was wrong to squelch the potential terrorist link. His comment was doubly foolish given that the New Jersey attack had happened the same day and involved similar methods, which in itself indicated that an organized campaign had begun. As Cuomo had no hint who the attackers were, he actually could say nothing whatsoever about whether they had any connections to the Islamic State.
The New York Times, meanwhile, headlined that the explosion was “intentional,” which was helpful, as it meant that a New York City garbage can had not detonated spontaneously.
Why on earth would de Blasio and Cuomo make such fatuous comments, especially when their security advisors must have been telling them something radically different? (NYPD intelligence and counter-terrorist operations are superb.) Why, particularly, would they make remarks that are virtually certain to be disproved within days?
Both de Blasio and Cuomo made an instant decision to go the heart of the matter as they saw it, which was not analyzing or discussing terrorism, but rather preventing hate crimes and pre-empting “Islamophobia.” In doing this, they were closely echoing the approach of Barack Obama, who has explicitly stated that the danger of terrorism is wildly overblown, as fewer Americans die from terrorism than die from slipping in their bathtubs. (Thank heaven Obama was not president in December 1941, or he would presumably have been lecturing the American people about how small the casualty figures were on the USS Arizona, when set aside road deaths.) In contrast, the real and pressing danger facing the nation is ethnic and religious hatred and bigotry, which is bad in itself, and which also threatens U.S. prestige and diplomatic clout in the wider world.
Combating that threat must take absolute supremacy. That means (among other things) systematically underplaying and under-reporting any and all violent incidents committed by Muslims, or even overtly claimed for Islamist causes. Where Islamist claims are explicitly made, then the waters must be muddied by suggesting other motives—presenting the assailant as a lone berserker, motivated perhaps by psychiatric illness or homophobia. We rarely hear this ubiquitous strategy identified or named, so I offer a name here: this is the U.S. policy of de-Islamization.
With a mixture of bemusement and despair, we watch the extremely limited coverage of the savage attack in St Cloud, Minn., where a Somali man approached strangers in a mall, asked them if they were Muslim, and attacked any and all non-Muslims with a knife while shouting “Allah akbar.” The Islamic State rapidly acknowledged the assailant as one of its soldiers. The FBI has labeled the attack “a potential act of terrorism.” (You think?) Rather than focusing on the attacker or his motivations, CNN’s coverage of the incident emphasizes that “Community leaders fear anti-Muslim backlash, call for unity.” If you have the languages, you are much better off accessing French or German news sources for coverage of such American events.
What about Cuomo’s “international terrorism” point? This represents a throwback to what should be an extinct classification system for terrorist attacks.
In years gone by, some terror attacks were launched by U.S. citizens working in various causes, while others were the work of international forces. The latter might include an Iraqi militant assassinating dissidents in Michigan. But the label also had ethnic and religious overtones. In the 1980s and 1990s, domestic terrorism usually implied white supremacists or neo-Nazis, while “international” commonly denoted Islamic or Middle Eastern connections.
That distinction made sense when the U.S. had a small Muslim population, very few of whom were tied to international causes or organizations. That situation is now totally different, and most of the numerous Islamist terror attacks on U.S. soil of the past decade have been undertaken by U.S. residents or citizens. Orlando killer Omar Mateen was born in New York State, and Fort Hood terrorist Nidal Hassan was a Virginian serving in the U.S. Army. The man currently identified as a suspect in the Chelsea attacks is Ahmad Khan Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen.
All these events are thus domestic terror attacks, but they were committed in the name of global Islamist causes, specifically of the Islamic State. So why does the domestic/international dichotomy matter any more?
When Cuomo said the Chelsea attacks were not international in character, what he meant to imply was that they were neither Islamic nor Islamist in inspiration. His statement was simply deceptive, and was part of the larger campaign to de-Islamize the present terror campaign.
Whoever the next president may be, I am not too concerned about how “tough” they aspire to be toward terrorism in general. I just want them to acknowledge the deadly seriousness of the situation this country faces from domestic guerrilla campaigns, and most importantly, the religious and political causes in which most of that violence is undertaken.
Let’s end de-Islamization.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.